17 December 2005

Visual thinking practice: Draw a stick figure

Cliff Atkinson asked if I would show how to draw a stick figure, so I decided to let you in on a little trade secret: All stick figures are not created equal. Today I'm going to teach you to draw a stick figure the way we do it at XPLANE.

Stick figures are a quick and easy way to visually represent the human body doing just about anything. I'm going to start you off easy by showing you how to draw a simple standing figure.

Here's a larger image of the drawing above.

1. Most people start a stick figure by drawing the head. This is a mistake. Since a stick figure represents the whole person, the best way to draw it is the way you see a whole person. Think about what you notice first when seeing someone from a distance. Always start with the body. The body is the center of gravity and motion. By starting with the body you will capture the essence of the gesture you want to convey.

2. After you have drawn the body in the position that you want, draw in a circle for the head. The placement of the head in relation to the body is essential. Happiness, angst, speed and sluggishness can all be conveyed by the relative positions of the head and body. Observe people doing their daily routines and you'll see what I mean.

3. Next, draw the facial expression. Your basic smiley face or frowney face will work here just fine. Adding a little line for a nose will help you show which direction the head is pointing. This can be especially important when you want to show two people interacting with each other.

4. Add the legs next -- they are more essential to conveying the gesture than the arms. When my basketball coach taught me to shoot, he explained that the primary energy that propels the ball comes not from your arms but from your legs (Watch some basketball on TV and you can actually see this). The energy of a stick figure works the same way. Note the use of small ovals to represent feet. This helps connect the person to the imaginary ground.

5. Now draw the arms, and complete the gesture you started with the legs.

6. I made the hands a separate step so you could see what a difference a couple of little lines makes. A short, one-line stroke will suffice for nearly any gesture.

7. Of course you're drawing the stick figure to convey some idea, action or emotion. Thought bubbles and word balloons are a great way to round out the complete thought.

Now that you've drawn a standing person, try your hand at some more tricky problems:
- How would you draw a tall person? A fat person? Someone with long hair or a beard?
- Go to a public place and see if you can capture the gestures of the people around you in stick-figure drawings. This is a great way to hone your observation skills.
- See if you can draw people running, dancing, fighting and sitting.
- Here's a hard one: draw a stick figure riding a bike.

Please send me your drawings so I can share your successes!

Read more about sketching in visual thinking school.

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Anonymous said...

Your "drawing a stick figure" post was excellent. I have no artistic ability, but with practice I think I can draw rough figures that communicate what I need to my design team and my clients.

Anonymous said...

The lack of a neck bothers me. You see, we're a culture which keeps separating mind and body. Your stick figure perpetuates that ... Would a neck hurt?

Unknown said...


You can add a neck if you want.

In case you are wondering, my stick figures have no cultural agenda, nor do I believe the mind and body are separable.

Thelma said...

I will try it...

Anonymous said...

this post was wonderful, it helped me with a school project and the teacher loved the way i drew my people. thanks a lot

Anonymous said...

I found it interesting to give some personality to my stick figure, I use match sticks and created this MatchMan :)

I imagine my to-do list is a match box containing lots of matches. Each match is a to-do, to be burned (finished, done) as soon as possible. Filing these matches into different match boxes is fun.

Look for the following header in www.MoleskineArt.com

"Each To-Do Is a Pieces Of Matchstick (19th Nov 04)"

and images here:

Unknown said...

Wow Patrick -- what an interesting concept. Did you ever do it with real matches?

Anonymous said...

Hey, this was very helpful to me. I am writting directions on how to draw a stick person for my english class and we need to have a min. of 24 steeps, this helped me think of a few more. I only need 9 more steeps! Thankyou Dave =)

Anonymous said...

Anonymous complaining about no neck, I think you're looking into it just a little too much.

Anonymous said...

wow, thank you so much for this. i can't really draw and i've always really liked stick figures for how ambiguous they are anyway. i've always wanted to get better, but this is the first real free little intro/help for us poor fools who can't draw that i've found. it really did help me. thanks!

Anonymous said...

I began to draw stick figures recently, and I felt that it's easy.And lots of my friends began to draw too.

I also interested in Visual thinking.:)

welcome to my blog


Anonymous said...

I've got the person thing going, but how would you do a dog...?

diya said...

hi, i meant 2 B a teacher , & this is very helpful 2 me in my teaching learning process.
thanx 2 build up my courage in drawing art

Anonymous said...

Great advice. I have been going for the xkcd 'look' with stick figures (http://frostfans.blogspot.com/search/label/cartoon) which is probably ok for the topic of frost fans, but your people have a bit more substance.
Good work.


proch said...

This is fantastic! your stick figures made a great impression while your team was working on my project, and I have to tell you that I always wanted to be able to draw them, and now that you're providing this tutorial, I'll be able to use these stick figures with my team. Thank you for sharing. Keep them coming...

Patrick Roch

kaite said...

dave - thanks so much for this step-by-step, and for explaining WHY you think it's important to use this order.

i work with autistic kids, and i draw stick people every day. my kids are highly visual learners. most of what i try to convey is pragmatics - body orientation, proximity, and eye contact. emotions are essential as well. you have given me great tools to enhance those important concepts.

much appreciation!


Unknown said...

Great to hear that kaite!

Unknown said...

This post was wonderful.I am training primary school teachers in Bangladesh and these skills dont exist here. Teachers spent hours on very elaborate, picture-like drawings to use in class, which is really time taking. Thank you very much!

Sandra said...

I have used the Stick figure with my postgraduate students - part of an Educational Responses To Refugees module. Trying to embody creative activities - safely. It worked really well - they enjoyed it - and I did too.

NB Re the neck/no neck debate: surely the neck would separate mind & body... no neck connects!

JoyAleks said...

This is a very useful post Dave! I have been studying design for 4 years and will graduate soon but never stopped to think How to draw a stick figure properly.
I am about to start facing the challenge of making illustrations for 5 to 10 year old kids and this is the perfect start to it.
Although any extra advice would be more than welcomed.

Joy - Colombia.

Unknown said...

So glad to hear it Joy!